Finding Joy in Speedwork

It may hurt, but there’s a sick kind of delight in speedwork.

Runners can be divided between those who love the track and those who hate it. For much of my life, I was in the latter group.

The track is a celebration of speed and athleticism, and I, like many others who end up as distance runners, was never very athletic or fast. Most of my memories of track races are of being dropped – then lapped – by speedy competitors. In track workouts, training partners I can outlast on the road and trail show me their heels as they pull away effortlessly.

In contrast, my colleague Liam Boylan-Pett says he’d much rather run a workout like 10 x 400m on the track than a 25K long run. Of course, his mile PB (3:57.75) is close to a minute faster than mine and he’s usually the one lapping others. Liam is successful on the track – it’s a celebration of what he was born to do.

But even slow-twitch runners like me can relate when Liam says he finds “a sick kind of joy” on the track. Despite my lack of speed, I’ve also learned to relish the oval, following some key principles.

The first step is to ditch comparisons. I, too, can feel successful on the track, zipping along the flat, firm, groomed-for-running surface, hitting goal splits and setting PBs. But I can’t appreciate that success if I’m looking at the Liams of the world. And, while on the road they disappear out of sight, on the track they circle around to rub it in every 400m. The solution? I tell myself that every faster guy on the track has someone in the world who is as far ahead of him as he is of me, then I ignore him.

The second key to track happiness is to dial in the level of effort. It is easier to get out of your depth with speed than with distance – the setting and the short time frames lure us to fly, then we suffer trying to keep it going. When reading workouts done by the elites, I have to look carefully at how their split times compare to their race times, and their volume to their total kilometres. If I scale my workouts proportionally to my race times and volume (reminding myself to be honest), the work is suddenly doable – not easy, but within my grasp. When I hit the sixth of eight repeats on-pace, and realize, no matter how difficult, I am doing this – I feel the joy.

Third, we have to make peace with the kind of pain brought by speed. The ability to go long requires enduring body- and mind-sapping fatigue, but the lung-searing, muscle-burning, panic-inducing pain of going fast is much harder for some of us to take. We’re used to being able to envelop the pain, to tell ourselves we can survive it for as long as it takes. The severe discomfort of the track cannot be mastered; we know it will win in a matter of moments. But those moments are all we need: Track workouts are short and intense. Loving the track requires effort that pushes over the red line.

As that line gets redefined, I discover that I have overcome another fear and become master over more of myself, which is a big reason I love running. And, there’s a nice side effect. A few days after a track workout, I’ll head out for a daily run and suddenly feel lighter, bouncier, more powerful, and even something I never thought I could be: fast.


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